Michigan moves to adopt early voting; Republicans say efforts go too far
- Lawmakers move to pass a series of bills to put Proposal 2, approved by voters last year, into state law.
- The bills give local clerks wide latitude on how long to offer early voting, a move Democrats say offers flexibility
- Republicans say the bills present an equity issue, as voters in some cities can cast ballots as long as 29 days before Election Day.
Voting in Michigan is about to undergo unprecedented changes, and among those changes will be the option of at least nine days of in-person early voting.
What that looks like to voters will depend on where in the state they live.
The House and Senate passed legislation Wednesday that allows municipal and county governments to decide the exact number of early voting days and the number of polling places.
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In Detroit, for example, voters will be able to vote in person up to three weeks before Election Day at locations across the city.
In Hillsdale County, on Michigan’s southern border, voters will be able to vote in person only during the minimum required nine days before the election. The county is currently planning one early polling place, at the county offices.
Early voting is the centerpiece of a series of landmark changes to elections that legislators are putting into place after the passage of ballot Proposal 2 last November.
Upper Peninsula Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, broke with his political party and is the lone Republican co-sponsor of the early voting bill.
“We’re writing a historic new chapter for voting in the state of Michigan,” Democratic state Sen. Jeremy Moss, who chairs the Senate’s committee on elections and ethics, said in a hearing introducing his bills last week.
“It’s a reminder to all of us that, as Michigan faced some of the most intense scrutiny in the nation over the last couple of years, voting rights remain popular here in Michigan,” he added.
In the past, Michigan voters could vote early only through an absentee ballot, including an option to request and fill out an absentee ballot during an in-person visit to a local clerk’s office, but the ballots were then set aside to be counted on Election Day. Under the early voting bill, polling places will be open at least eight hours a day, over a minimum of nine consecutive days, and voters will cast their ballot into a tabulator to be counted on site, just as they do on Election Day.
The other bills for implementing Proposal 2 allow Michigan voters to place themselves on a permanent list to automatically receive an absentee ballot every election, and mandate drop boxes and a tracking system for absentee ballots.
Sen. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, is a former Michigan secretary of state. She voted against the early voting bill, objecting to the freedom the bill gives clerks to expand the option beyond the required nine days.
She explained during last week’s hearing that one township may decide to run early voting for nine days while a clerk elsewhere could provide up to 29 days.
“I don’t believe it's equal access,” said Johnson.
“I feel that the legislation goes well beyond the mandates of Proposal 2 and further weakens the integrity of our elections. The bills also allow the secretary of state to wield unprecedented power to set procedures for early voting without going through the formal rule-making process.”
On Wednesday, Michigan House Republicans criticized the Democrats’ bills on Twitter, writing, “Democrats are trying to fundamentally change our elections today, going much further than what Prop 2 intended in order to benefit their prospects. House Republicans will continue to FIGHT this.”
Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou, D-East Lansing and the chair of the House Elections and Ethics Committee, said the framework for implementing early voting in her bill, HB 4567, allows for “much needed flexibility for our clerks and at the same time giving Michigan voters unprecedented access to in-person voting.”
Local clerks in Michigan’s cities and townships would have three options for conducting early voting:
- Create their own plan for setting up and staffing early voting in their municipality.
- Conduct early voting with one or more neighboring communities in the same county under a municipal agreement in which they share staff, voting equipment, and other resources
- Enter into a county agreement and let the county clerk arrange the early voting for their area.
Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, a Democrat, testified last week that the early voting bill and other voting legislation will “carry out the will of the voters” after Proposal 2 passed in November with 60 percent approval.
“They are and reflect national best practices that have bipartisan support, from Kentucky to Minnesota and everywhere else … Michigan as well, of course, endorsed these policies by a wide margin last year,” added Benson.
Erica Peresman, a lawyer and senior adviser for Promote the Vote, which led the drive for Proposal 2, said the bills represent “a road map,” and a one-size-fits-all proposition wouldn’t have worked for the state. This way, Peresman said, municipalities have flexibility.
Ever since Proposal 2 passed in November, local clerks have been looking for answers about how they should conduct early voting and how to pay for it. It’s still unclear how local governments are expected to cover the costs and what funding help they’ll get from the state. The Proposal 2 bills don’t include any funding for the voting expansions, and Benson has previously put the costs at up to $45 million, with $10 million to $15 million in local funding needed for early voting.
Saginaw County Clerk Vanessa Guerra, who spoke at both of last week’s Senate and House committee hearings, said she already is preparing her office for early voting, which could begin in most municipalities with the presidential primary in February, but she can’t convince her county officials to commit to any funding until the new bills become law.
Hillsdale County Chief Deputy Clerk Abe Dane met recently with clerks in his county and has been putting his plan together.
“The clock is ticking,” Dane told Votebeat Michigan.
So far he said he’s planning for Hillsdale’s 28 precincts to share one voting site for nine days of early voting, likely at the county courthouse, though he said he’s still in talks with one clerk and that could change depending on the details of the legislation that ultimately passes and depending on guidance from the state.
That arrangement would cost the county less than $1,000 per precinct, Dane said. He’s hoping county and state funds will pay for the early voting.
“It’s about saving money,” said Dane. “It’s really expensive.”
In Detroit, elections officials plan to offer three weeks of early voting, said Dan Baxter, the Department of Elections’ chief operating officer for absentee voting and special projects.
“We shouldn’t have any problem implementing early voting in the city of Detroit,” Baxter told Votebeat Michigan. “We’ve been operating 12 satellite voting centers, so now early voting is just a switch.”
Satellite offices, which the city has provided since 2012, are where voters previously could cast in-person absentee ballots, and Baxter said they’ve been popular.
Detroit has 500,000 registered voters, and Baxter said “we’re hoping with early voting that folks see it as a viable option.”
Baxter said he did not have figures yet on how much it will cost to offer the three weeks of early voting. Like other election officials across Michigan, Baxter is keeping his eyes turned toward Lansing to see whether the state will budget more funding for local election departments.
On Thursday, the voting-rights advocacy organization Voters Not Politicians appealed to volunteers to help support efforts to get funding to put the voting reforms into effect.
“Our team of staff and volunteers interviewed 35 municipal election clerks across the state and these clerks overwhelmingly stressed the need for appropriate funding in order to carry out the 2024 election. Michigan’s 1,603 election jurisdictions depend on the legislature to fund the expanded voting access that they are constitutionally required to provide,” VNP wrote in its newsletter appeal
Detroit resident and longtime voter Veronica Armstead still isn’t sure she will take part in early voting herself, because she prefers to vote on Election Day, but she likes the flexibility it gives voters.
“I’m glad the option is here. I might consider it down the road,” said Armstead, a retired 66-year-old state government staffer.
Also on Tuesday, Moss introduced two bills, SB 386 and SB 387, to preprocess and tabulate absentee ballots prior to Election Day. Results could not be generated before the close of the polls at 8 p.m. Election Day.
For municipalities with more than 5,000 residents, clerks will be able to preprocess eight days before Election Day. In communities with fewer residents, clerks will be able to begin preprocessing and tabulating absentee ballots beginning at 7 a.m. on Monday before Election Day. In the past, election officials had to wait until Election Day itself to begin processing absentee ballots, which has slowed down reporting results and created dramatic shifts in vote tallies as absentee voting results were added into the totals after the in-person votes.
Moss said the legislation could have tremendous benefits.
“One of the biggest challenges for election administrators and quite frankly one of the biggest election policy failures of the last couple of years was the inaction from the Legislature to manage the record number of absent voter ballots submitted,” said Moss Tuesday. “We know that this was one of the largest contributors to misinformation in 2020 that rose to national attention.”
Former Michigan elections director Chris Thomas, a consultant for the City of Detroit’s Department of Elections, testified Tuesday in support of Moss’s bills, calling them “a great step forward for election administration.”
Thomas said early processing and tabulation of absentee ballots could cut down on a huge logjam at counting boards, as seen in bigger cities like Detroit. Thomas said instead of 140 counting tables, the new legislation could cut Detroit’s number of tables down to 25.
Oralandar Brand-Williams is a senior reporter for Votebeat. Contact Oralandar at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. Votebeat will make this article available for reprint under the terms of its republishing policy.
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